I grew up during a time when children’s opinions at home were seldom considered or even allowed. I remember hearing “Children should be seen and not heard,” or the Cuban version of that infamous saying: “Los muchachos hablan cuando las gallinas mean,” which roughly translates into “Children should speak when chickens pee.” In other words, never!
Growing up under a totalitarian regimen, where freedom to speak your mind was reserved only for the Comandante in Chief, didn’t help with the development of my expressive side. The fact that my family had decided early on that we wanted out of the Cuban version of paradise, made it even harder to practice uncensored speech. From that moment on, words spoken in public carried dire implications: anything said could be used by the authorities to delay or obstruct our family’s exit. It was — and still is — very easy to get in trouble in Cuba over a statement made or an opinion expressed that threatens the government’s interest and hold on power.
As a child, I feared getting my family in trouble and I withdrew. Growing up under these conditions, it was hard to know what constituted a violation of the rules and not speaking my mind became synonymous with safety.
I’ve heard the expression “The truth shall set you free,” but growing up I saw examples of what happened to those that dared speak the truth: jail, social isolation, exile and even death. I remember the case of an outspoken young man — a troublemaker, according to the man in charge of neighborhood watch committee — who was taken to the police station for questioning about his anti-government views. He died in custody, when he slipped and “accidentally” cracked his skull against the corner of a desk, dying from a cerebral hemorrhage. And I knew of many more cases where expressing your feelings of frustration or disillusion with the Revolution carried severe consequences. It was easy to find yourself accused of being a counter-revolutionary, an enemy of the state or even a member of the CIA. Those instances became powerful deterrents against any natural desire — as any young person’s instincts dictate — to tell the world what I thought and how I felt.
It is still surprising to me that I chose to become a writer in spite of the negative imprinting I received as a child. Perhaps the decision to write has been my way of finding and reclaiming that part of my soul and my childhood that was robbed by a group of thugs — the same thugs that also stole a half a century from the inheritance of a decent and proud people.
All writers grapple with a sense of obligation to the honesty of our work and with the commitment to speak the truth about our experiences. For most of us, those obligations and commitments must be carefully balanced against the responsibility to protect our families and safeguard their privacy. Occasionally, I still fear that an opinion or position expressed could be used against me or that my written words might bring harm to a loved one.
These are old, negative, but familiar voices. They want me complicit in my own silencing.
But I write on. Every line I put down and each thought I uncover and set forth, in spite of the fears, gets me closer to unveiling my true self.
More than anything, I want to hear the sound of my true voice.